I tried to kill myself when I was a teenager. It seemed like a natural progression for a young lesbian, growing up in the South. I kept my sexual orientation hidden until college, but that didn’t stop the taunting and the bullying I encountered in high school. I was teased relentlessly for my manner of dress—I wore boys’ shirts, jeans, jean jackets and boots or tennis shoes. I was teased for my short hair, my boyish mannerisms and, oh, yeah, my funny name.
It was torture—but school wasn’t the only place. There was also church; that good old Southern Baptist house of worship where I learned that my secret yearnings made me a sworn enemy of the God I had loved (and who I thought loved me) since childhood.
All that condemnation, from my peers, from my church, from my God, came to a head one night and I decided to put an end to it all by putting an end to me. Thankfully, my plan failed—and as the videos being produced by LGBT people who, like me, survived their childhood say, it does, indeed, get better.
I believed that if I had had out and active role models during my adolescence that it wouldn’t have been as horrible as it was, but perhaps the latest rash of gay teen suicides puts the lie to that belief. We have tons of out celebrities, writers, and performers, and still teens are getting the message that their lives are somehow less than others, that their lives are evil and not worth living.
I blame the religious right and their insistence on their “religious freedom” to condemn and bully LGBT people for this continuing trend of spiritual violence. Even as marriage equality is finally gaining a foothold (and a popular following, according to the polls), children are still being bullied by their peers, by their pastors, and their parents. One young man who took his life recently was 19-year-old EricJames Borges whose “extremist Christian” parents tried to exorcise his gay demon and called him “disgusting and perverted” before kicking him out of the house.
Borges had the best support around as a volunteer for The Trevor Project (the org that works to prevent LGBT suicide). He even did his own It Gets Better video. But I fear it was finally the religious condemnation that led this beautiful young man to take his own life. Everyone under the sun can tell you it gets better, but the bottom line is this: If you believe God will send you to hell for who you love, there will be nothing anyone can say to convince you that it gets better—since God never changes, right?
I have seen too many in my community struggle with God—and the image of the bullying God they have been given by their churches and their families. This image of God as a loving destroyer, whose acceptance is conditioned on your strict adherence to “His” rules, has ruined too many lives. What needs to change is not the LGBT child, but this horrible and terribly wrong image of God as a holy bully that is being purveyed by religious institutions and believers.
The trouble is, though, this image of God has worked very well for those in power. Despite growing support for LGBT people in the polls, this issue still has enough of an “ick factor” to make those who talk about the “sin” of homosexuality (and transgenderism!) look like they are the true moral paragons. In fact, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s wife feels secure enough to take up the victim role, accusing LGBT people of “vilifying” her husband—even calling it, without a hint of irony, “backyard bullying.”
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, responded to Mrs. Santorum: “You love your husband—I get that. You love your faith—fine by me. But when you pretend that hate is love, that lies are truth, and that victims are oppressors, you have become inane.”
Not just inane, but dangerous. It is exactly this vision of God as “backyard bully” that puts LGBT youth on the path to suicide, and it must stop. But, it won’t as long as the GOP and anti-gay religious right groups can raise cash using this image of God as divine bully. This is why the “religious freedom” debate is so important; and why it highlights the hypocrisy of the religious right. They can certainly crow all they want about how they condemn LGBT people out of “love” for them, but one surefire test of true love is that it leads to life—not death.
It is these religious undertones—and outright blatant anti-LGBT preaching—that makes children choose to end their own lives no matter how many role models and videos they have telling them it gets better. It’s hell for them right now, and that’s all that matters to them.
The problem lies not with the child, but with the messages they are receiving from authorities like parents, preachers, and politicians. When money and power become more important than the lives of children, then God is truly and finally dead. It was the 15th-century mystic Meister Eckhart who prayed: “God, rid me of God.” If we are to have true religious freedom for everyone in this country, that must be our prayer as well.